Sunday, October 8, 2006

Pollster John Zogby doesn’t mince words when he describes what voters are telling him about the country’s direction and the upcoming midterm elections: “There’s a nasty mood out there.”

With the electorate bitterly divided over the war in Iraq, sour on the economy, angered by lobbying scandals and shocked by former Rep. Mark Foley’s explicit messages to a teenage House page, voters are fed up with the politicians on both sides of the aisle, he says.

A Gallup Poll found last month that 63 percent of Americans disapproved of the job Congress was doing, compared with 29 percent who approved. Polls show that voters had a similarly dismal view of just about every other level of government from governorships down to the state legislatures, pollsters said.

“This could very well be a pox-on-both-parties election,” the independent election pollster said Friday. “The Republicans are severely wounded, but while Democrats are leading in the House races, it’s hard to see any enthusiasm there.”

One sign that the electorate was tuning out of this year’s nonstop political battles was the record-low voter turnout in the primaries, according to a new study by Curtis Gans, director of American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate.

Mr. Gans noted that “only 15.4 percent of the electorate went to the polls, a record low for mid-term primaries” — down by more than one-sixth from the 2002 turnout levels, when 18.6 percent of eligible voters went to the primary polls.

The reason, he says, is “a growing disaffection in both parties and a weakening of political allegiances.”

Still, Mr. Gans agrees with Mr. Zogby’s description of the country’s gloomy mood but cautions that “there hasn’t been a time in history when both sides lost. If you had one of these elections where you think ‘a pox on both your houses,’ it’s only going to be a pox on one house, and that’s the party in power.”

He’s predicting that “turnout is likely to increase substantially above the 39.7 percent of the electorate who voted in 2002 and probably above the 42.2 percent who voted in 1994,” driven by “the intensity of feelings on both sides” of a divided electorate.

But before the House page scandal broke, igniting a finger-pointing fight among conservatives over who was to blame, polls had shown the political environment slowly improving and the election tightening in the House and Senate races.

Gas prices have plummeted to a national average of $2.28 a gallon for regular, retail sales were reported strong last month, new-home sales were up by 4 percent, and consumer confidence surveys were up, too. The stock market also surged last week, with the Dow industrial index climbing to a new high that boosted worker 401(k) pension stock funds.

Republican campaign officials talked of “turning the corner” in their campaigns and a change in the nation’s political mood. Elections forecaster Stuart Rothenberg reported at the end of last month that “GOP polling has shown dramatically improved prospects for the party in a number of districts.”

After House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s press conference last week, Republican officials now think their party has regained the offensive on the page scandal after beginning a two-pronged investigation by the House ethics committee and the FBI.

“The only anger we’re hearing from our grass roots is anger aimed at one man — Mark Foley,” said a senior Republican campaign official.

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